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How much is that Swordfish in the Window? How we got here with our food – Part 1 – The Cost of Food

In the series on food and food processing I started by outlining the Beloved Fantasy of a Blissful Past (1), and then laid out a Framework (2) to discuss food processing itself and how we got here from there. In this post I will talk about one of the biggest drivers in the processing of food - the cost of food to the consumer, and what it meant for the development of our food environment. I will also take this opportunity to introduce one of the writers whose work I will outline to illustrate the changes over time – Ida Bailey Allen.

Those who fantasize about our Blissful Past frequently imagine some kind of pastoral utopia, where all food is produced locally, it is fresh, and Mom and Sis spend all sorts of time at home cooking from scratch and Dad and Bud sit at the table with Mom and Sis and Baby and eat this fresh food daily. Everybody looks like Katharine Hepburn and Clark Gable or Cary Grant (conveniently forgetting Mae West and W.C. Fields – but that is how selective memory works). Ummm… Not so much. Although there has been a great deal of change, that world of agrarian subsistence farming (to the degree that it ever existed) was destroyed with the birth of the Industrial Revolution. I will state this – that foods that would fall into the following categories of food processing and manipulation (categories generally considered “bad” or “linked” with obesity by the food nannies and wags) within our Framework (4) have been with us for the last 100 years (or longer in many cases):

  • Canned meats and vegetables (of all types)
  • Margarine (1871)
  • Non-animal shortening (like Crisco) – 1911
  • Dried soup or bouillon – 1908

This is just a short list. The development of each of these items responded not only to the need for shelf stability, but it also allowed the consumer to address the issue of cost in two ways. They lowered the cost to purchase the needed food (margarine and shortening are two examples as they replace both butter and lard) and/or retard food spoilage thus allowing the consumer to “stock up” when prices are lower and stabilize the cost of purchasing the food. Implicit in their use is also convenience – a home-made broth may taste better and could be more wholesome, but takes longer to prepare than bouillon. It might be more profitable (and cheaper) for an industrial worker to use the bouillon and work more hours than to spend the time making broth from scratch. So cost is an important driver of innovation in food processing (5).

The cost of food to the end consumer is of concern to everyone, because we all eat. Some of us might eat swordfish and others might eat potted canned meat, but we all need to eat so we can live. Economists pay close attention to the Consumer Price Index of which food is one component (3). Many organizations and professions pay attention to the cost of food for operational reasons (schools to budget for school lunches, and relief organizations to budget for relief operations – for example). Historians and economists who focus on the movement of consumer prices over the years look at the cost of food as drivers of human activity of all kinds. Scientists involved with food production (whether it is agriculture or food chemistry or food preservation – for instance) focus on how they can lower food costs through the use of technology. In short, the cost of food – whether in money or effort to obtain it – is a driving force in what we as humans do every day.

For the rest of this discussion, keep the following numbers in mind:

  • For the purposes of discussion here, I have held the dollar in 1935 as the constant (1935 dollars = 1 dollar)
  • A family budget of $9 per week for food for a family of 4 in 1935 was the equivalent of about $148 in today’s dollars
  • A family budget of $20 per week for food for a family of 4 in 1952 was the equivalent of $170 in 2011
  • The proportion spent on food by a family in 1952 was about 50%.
  • According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis consumer spending on food in the lowest 20% of household income was 16.2% versus 11.5% in the highest 20% income quintile (2009)

A great many things happened to the price of food in the intervening years. In fact, the proportion spent on shelter now occupies the highest percentage of expenditure, whereas in years past it was not so. The effect of the cost of food on the American home budget, and in food and diet developments is something that can be seen very clearly in the works of one woman – Ida (Cogswell) Bailey Allen (6).

Here she is in her kitchen in 1924

And here is her publicity photo of 1935

Ida Bailey Allen was born in 1885 and died in 1973. During her lifetime she produced a plethora of books on cooking and home-making (even taking into account that many were new editions of previous works). Her 50 books sold 20 million copies. She pioneered cooking shows on radio and TV. She advised women on wartime cooking during both world wars, and her opinion was sought by many on topics of nutrition and diet. She was the food editor for the Ladies’ Home Journal. She established cooking schools in her youth, and home making clubs across the nation. She was the Martha Stewart of her time, lending her name to many companies such as Coca Cola, Nucoa Margarine, and The Golden Rule foods as endorsements and by editing cookbooks distributed by these companies. Her last book (Best Loved Recipes of the American People) was published in 1973 just shortly after her death.

Now, a number of writers have mentioned her role in gender-role enforcement, while others have (dismissively, I feel) short-changed her legacy. The 60’s and 70’s were not kind to her. James Beard and Julia Child took her place in the newly-affluent national food theatre, and she was said to maintain that “good home cooking was an antidote to the rising divorce rate” (7) – unflattering words which were quoted in her obituary. People – watch what you say or someone will put the silliest thing you ever said in your obituary. All of that aside, a closer look at her oeuvre belies her image either as a corporate shill, or an anti-woman crusader for what many may have considered the way things “ought to be”. She was a woman of her time, and needs to be considered within her social context.

The primary thrust of much of her work was focused on the home economy, and the proper preparation and utilization of food. Her training as a dietitian gave her the knowledge of food, its components and its utilization in the body. Her skill as writer and speaker allowed her to convey this information in ways her public could understand.

In 1924 she recommended to her readers ( 8 ) with a family income of $1,000 to $2,000 per year [$13,000 to $26,000 in today’s dollars using the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Consumer Price Index (CPI) calculator], a budget of 9 to 10 dollars per week to be spent on food for a family of four to five people. That works out to up to $520 dollars per year ($131 dollars per week or $6,840 per year in today’s dollars). That represented 52 to 27 percent of the family’s income. Today’s proportion is 25% or less. In 1935 (9), she presents a week of menus for 4 people at $9 per week. That is about $149 in today’s dollars.

In 1952, the picture changes considerably. Consider now that World War II has come and gone, but the Korean War is in progress. The pent-up demand for goods and services (including food) is working its way through the system, and the baby boom is in full swing. Food prices rise swiftly. So what starts to happen? Foods begin to be fortified, and new foods are created. Home freezers become more generally available, and commercially-frozen foods are increasingly available. At the same time, there is a rise in the availability of “convenience foods” (pre-cut, pre-packaged, and sometimes pre-prepared). Now her family food budget for a family of four is $20 to $30 per week (up to $254.65 per week in 2011 dollars). Her target families at this time were earning anywhere between $2,000 and $6,000 per year before all deductions. ($17,000 to $51,000 in today’s dollars). Most fell in between those two extremes, but as you can see we’re talking about the same social stratum here.

Her fundamental message in this 1952 book is one that would be fresh today – cook more, eat fewer convenience (pre-cut and packaged) foods, and pay attention to your food balance for nutrition. You can eat well for less. In this book, she sets forth – as is her custom – her concepts of balancing meals for optimum utilization of nutrients and calories. Yet she introduces concepts that have become business as usual for us today. For people who have very reduced food budgets, she advises supplementation (10) with Multi-Purpose Food , a soy product which was developed in 1937 to feed those who were to be refed from starving (from either famines or war – for instance). She claimed to have served it to enthusiastic gourmets at the Waldorf. She was documented to have served meals of leftovers at the Waldorf as well. These were publicity for her as well as public service efforts. Multi-Purpose food was around until 1980.

She also advocates for use of fortified flour, Cornell Formula bread (good stuff – actually), raw peanuts, and other fortification of foodstuffs either at home or purchased. She recommends advocating for food fortification in one’s area. In her milk budget section (11) (which was ‘out of control’ – her words - in some households with large numbers of children) she advocates dried milk as well as homogenized milk and milk products such as yogurt. This is also a departure from the pattern in other books, since technology had made available different milk “formats” than were available previously. For example, she talks about irradiated milk. Food irradiation was fairly new at the time. It makes us squawk with alarm, but at the time it was seen as a way to kill bacteria and pests to protect the purity of the food. Some still see it that way and advocate for it. I’m not going to reach for a warm glass of irradiated milk, but back then it was state-of-the-art for food preservation, and whether or not it is safe is really material for someone else’s web-page (though it would make for an interesting discussion).

So, the rising cost of food through the middle of the 20th Century drove changes in the types of foods available (greater number) with new developments in food science geared to maximize nutrition per dollar spent on calories. Ida Bailey Allen was not only a participant in these changes, but she advocated for the new foods in her home-making and cooking books. Specifically, and despite her advocacy of home food preparation and reduced use of prepared (pre-cut and packaged) foods, her readers also had another driver that pushed them toward the use of prepared and/or shelf-stable foods: time. I’ll discuss that in the next post, but I just wanted to leave you a treat to share with those who refuse to believe that there EVER was processed food in the past. In 1940, Ida Bailey Allen published a book entitled Ida Bailey Allen’s Time-Saving Cookbook. In it, there is a cool little recipe for Mexican Rice Timbales. They are shown as the cover art for the book. For your enjoyment, here is the picture and the recipe. It features pasteurized process American cheese: the cheese that isnot supposed to have existed “back then”. Enjoy!

Book Cover


(Edited to correct odd sentence and some typos and errors)


(1) In the post entitled Beloved Fantasy of a Blissful Past I noted that fat people DID in fact exist in times past, and that the question of whether or not processed food is the prime cause of obesity today is more complex than it appears.

(2) In the post entitled A Framework for Talking about Food and Processing, I laid out the following framework for the discussion:

  • The reasons why food is processed
  • How food is and has been processed and a definition of foods according to their level of processing as reflected in the following categories:
    1. Whole, Raw Foods
    2. Staples
    3. Traditionally-Preserved Foods
    4. Home-Canned Foods
    5. Home-Frozen Foods
    6. Home-Frozen Foods
    7. Frozen Whole Foods (commercial)
    8. Shelf-Stable Foods
    9. Prepared Foods (includes whole meals ready to eat)
  • The Hierarchy of Foods – how today’s perception of foods as being associated with a higher or lower class within society imbues them by association with a tag of “processed” or not irrespective of reality

(3) You can find information on the Consumer Price Index at the Bureau of Labor Statistics web page. They also have a handy Inflation Calculator

(4) The food nannies, scolds, and wags usually go after Prepared Foods of all types, and Shelf-Stable Foods as their chief diet malefactors.

(5) War, as discussed previously, is another driver of innovation in food processing. I will likely do another post on that, because there have been some fascinating developments in the production of meals prepared for deployed soldiers.

(6) I’m a big fan of Ida Bailey Allen – I have amassed quite a collection of her books, booklets, and pamphlets. I use them for recipes all the time!

(7) From Ida Bailey Allen’s obituary in the New York Times, July 17, 1973.

( 8 ) Ida Bailey Allen, Home Partners or Seeing the Family Through. Privately printed, 1924; pp 12-13

(9) Ida Bailey Allen, Cooking within Your Income, published for F. W. Woolworth Co by W. F. Hall Printing Co. Chicago; p. 134.

(10) Ida Bailey Allen, Solving the High Cost of Eating; pp 31-33

(11) Ibid.; pp 10-16

Fitness Epiphany | Velvet L'Amour's new web magazine - wow!

vesta44's picture
February 27th, 2012 | Link | This is fascinating, and

This is fascinating, and very good to refute the naysayers who think processed foods are a "recent" thing (as in not having been around for more than 50 years). Hell, I'm 58, and I can remember boxed mac & cheese from when I was a kid (not that my mother would buy it, she made hers from scratch, but she still used Velveeta, which is processed cheese). And Velveeta has been around since 1918 ( see here for the story of how it came to be).

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

MichMurphy February 27th, 2012 | Link | I'm super-excited for this

I'm super-excited for this series of posts, Andy Jo - I don't know how I missed it when you started in November, but this is a topic close to my heart that I haven't had the time to do much in-depth research on. So I'm really looking forward to more!

Meowzer February 28th, 2012 | Link | Fabulous. Thank you SO much

Fabulous. Thank you SO much for doing this, Andy Jo.

I just got my Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook today. If you like the show and like to cook and/or mix cocktails, or love to read about restaurants from the mid-20th century, you can't go wrong. I'm having a total blast with it, and some of the recipes are so flat-out hilarious I feel like I have to try them (like the one where you soft-boil eggs, bread and fry them, and serve them with a creamy lobster sauce). One thing I never, ever see in any of these recipes: whole grains, other than maybe black (pumpernickel) bread served with steak tartare. Yep, raw ground beef with raw eggs, that was fancy food then! And no lightly steamed organic veggies, either. The fettuccine alfredo recipe (which comes from a Little Italy joint that's been making it that way since 1906!) features one cup of heavy cream per serving. That's supposed to be "healthier" than an order of chili fries how, exactly?

And yet...I never, ever see people complaining about MM being a bad influence on people's diets (or, ahem, other habits). The watery-tea excuse I often see among the snoboisie is the idea that "well, rich people only eat like that a few times a month, those fatties snarf that stuff for every meal." Uh, sorry, but we don't. Most of us can't afford it, either time or money-wise; we're likely to be snarfing way more meals consisting of $1 frozen dinners from the Dollar Tree, or maybe canned chili. How decadent of us. And they don't tell us exactly which people they've picked out to starve to death in their No Processed Food Ever utopia, but I think we can guess.

AndyJo's picture
March 1st, 2012 | Link | Just entirely too priceless!

Just to prove a point, please see this:

Apparently, the iceman guy (neolithic) that they dug out of a glacier had really bad atherosclerosis, but none of the risk factors! Not obese! ((SENSATION!!!)) Was a hunter-gatherer! Ate the paleo diet!!! No processed foods!!! They looked at his genome, and he had a very strong genetic predisposition to developing the disease.

Well... The great minds concluded that we clearly must have less control over atherosclerosis than they thought.

He had bad teeth, gallstones, and lyme disease.

In fact, he was a medical mess.

Now there's a big, flaming sack of DUH!!! [[[HEADDESK]]]

--Andy Jo--

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